Taking Care of Yourself: Self-care Strategies for Effective Leadership During COVID-19

May 29, 2020 - (6 min read)

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to sit down with my college roommate, Dr. Arthur Evans, now CEO of The American Psychological Association; Lindsay Horvath, Mayor of West Hollywood, CA; and hundreds of other local elected officials to discuss the importance of maintaining mental health and committing to self-care during the pandemic.

This all started as two college roommates checking in on each other during a difficult time in our lives. Dr. Evans and I had a conversation about how members of NLC and APA are doing, and how municipal leaders are expected step up and be the “helpers” to everyone in their communities.

But, the notion that cities are the most trusted form of government is sometimes a lot of pressure. You are on the front lines – the ones that are seeing the over 100,000 deaths that have resulted from the pandemic in the United States.

From dealing with business closures, ensuring first responders have PPE, and many more new and unprecedented issues, local officials are facing a lot of – sometimes brutal – backlash. Just think about Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, whose daughter saw her receive a text using a racial epithet and telling her to “shut up and reopen Atlanta.” The text was also sent to one of her other children.

Something that stuck out to me from APA’s Stress in America Report released earlier this month is that the economy is a significant source of stress for 70% of adults, compared with 46% in the 2019 poll. And that stress is even more amplified when you are a local official concerned not only for the financial security of you, your family, your friends, but your ENTIRE community.

Dr. Evans, Mayor Horvath and I went on to discuss these sensitive but imperative issues facing America’s local and community leaders. As Dr. Evans was quick to point out, we are told on airplanes: “Put on your own mask before helping others.” This applies to mental health as well. As you’re dealing with this responsibility and pressure, every local leader must recognize that you are human too.

Dr. Evans outlined four ways to be an effective leader during this unprecedented time:

Understand you are in a very unique situation.

Even if your natural tendency is to increase your work, it’s really important to recognize this isn’t a typical situation and you must be aware of the stressors you’re experiencing.

The advice I can offer is not as a licensed physician – but rather, it is from personal experience. As leaders, you can’t take all the responsibility on your shoulders. You are in a position where you feel like you must show up for your residents, but you cannot solve COVID-19 and all of its ramifications alone. This is a great moment for us to go back to the notion of putting your mask on first and remembering that WE ARE HUMAN and we’ve got to act human. Humans are tired sometimes, and humans need support.

It is important to recognize your own stressors.

Of course, we know that the impacts of poor mental and emotional health have been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic due to trauma, stress, anxiety and fears about the virus and economic instability. We are not superhumans – we can’t solve everyone’s issues all at once and that’s okay. It’s okay to say, “I don’t have the answer.” As leaders, we are expected to be strong and carry on. To be strong, it starts with ourselves. So, my advice is to be self-aware and find a way each day for a short break. You are human too, and your family needs you.

Take time to pause.

When we’re in positions of leadership we feel like we have to solve everything immediately – we often create unrealistic timelines for ourselves. Taking more control over your schedule can be an important strategy for mitigating your stress. As a former mayor who has dealt with crises, I know first-hand how you are spread thin right now. Don’t be afraid to pause and recognize that our roles are not to just shoulder 100% of the burden. Our role is to show up for our residents, lead our teams to come up with solutions, and execute on those solutions.

We are human and it’s okay to have human reactions. It’s important to find an outlet and a source of strength that works for you. For me, music is my catharsis – it’s where I turn when I need a moment to myself, or some extra inspiration.

Take time to take care of yourself physically.

Physical activity contributes to our mental health. It is important to exercise, eat right and get sleep. These things are going to impact the ability to do your job.

To be strong, it starts with ourselves. Are we finding ways to support ourselves – our mental health? Many of us find ourselves saying “I do not have the time. I do not have 15, 10 or even 5 minutes today to care for myself.” As a leader, it is hard, you have so many people relying on you. Often, I find myself available at 10:00 pm. Public officials are used to being public, but not THIS public; where we can see inside your homes, we can see your families in the background, forgetting to go on mute. It’s important to be able to give yourself time, otherwise it is very difficult to set boundaries.

I hope if you got nothing else from this, you now know how important it is for you to put on your mask first, to take a pause, and care for yourself if you’re going to be an effective leader. Do ONE thing today that gives you peace, gives you rest, and see how you feel. This is learned behavior and you can learn how to put yourself first. Being able to be vulnerable and say you’re tired, need a break, or are struggling is important. Putting on that cape we constantly put on doesn’t allow us to create boundaries. Find some time to be selfish. If you’re not healthy, even mentally healthy, you will not be the leader that you could be.

You can view a full recording of the conversation here.

Register now for the second and third forums in the series: “Taking Care of Your City: Addressing the Psychological Impact of COVID-19” on June 4 and “Taking Care of Your Workforce: How Local Government Leaders Can Support Employees Through COVID-19” on June 11.


About the Author: 

Clarence E. Anthony is the CEO & Executive Director of the National League of Cities. Follow him on Twitter: @ceanthony50.